Nov 5, 2016
I once loved beginnings. Starting over, fresh, on a new page, a new book, film, poem, music. The recovery of innocence. The slate is wiped clean. The process has been all too familiar: the path into experience, travels down the wrong roads, off the roads, forgotten time in lost villages, sins committed, failures of self, guilt, resentment, doubt, double thinking, resolutions, confessions, expiations, atonement, purifications, simplifications, rebirth, renewal and the world begins again. Again and again.
I question this cycle. When it is a vicious circle? When it is a hole being down ever deeper, a lie of the mind? When is is an arc on a spiral moving ever outward or ever inward, fractalesque, the loop unfolding infinitely, approximating God?
I get sick of it. Cynical. A tired voice inside my head: this? again? You are a fool.
Ritual becomes anodyne for this cynicism. The redemption of routine time. The boring empty never ending moments that make up the day suddenly charged with meaning, value and time. Those hours spent thinking of nothing now appear as such wastes. Urgency illuminates the fleeting instants of the day. There is never enough time.
And yet, so much is still wasted trying to begin again. Again.
These days, I love endings. Knowing there is not much longer sustains and fuels hope. There is time, just enough, to end it all well. But just barely.
Nov 2, 2016
I've been obsessed with Mindfulness Practice. It's the most significant change in my life since Memory Practice. Of course, the two are intimately intertwined. As far as memory is concerned, I have been coming up against some obstacles recently. I appear to have plateaued. I am still able to memorize as efficiently as I have before. I can memorize a sonnet in about 20 minutes. My retention and recall of these intentionally memorized poems is still strong. Perhaps it's my Memory Paranoia, but I have noticed my casual, every day memory failing me more often than usual.
For instance, I was trying to remember the name of the singer, Neko Case, the other day. And it was as if there were a box which had previously held her name. When I went to it, it was empty. I could remember names of songs, the quality of her voice, her physical appearance, but her name escaped me; it wasn't in the box. And so on. I could cite dozens of the instances of casual memory lapse, And certainly, most of them are ordinary and not the cause of concern.
When I returned to the Sonnets after an absence of a few weeks, I noted that many of the new ones I had been working on - between 90 and 125 - were hazy phantoms at best. They didn't feel as if they had been impressed upon the tablets of my memory as deeply as earlier sonnets. I grant some of this effect to the sheer fatigue of memorizing 154 sonnets. But I don't entirely believe this. It should be easy to memorize and keep in the memory thousands of poems, songs and prose passages. I do not believe the human mind has many of the limitations we place on it out of culturally inherited habits of assumption. We are capable of much much more than we realize.
I believe it's my body, my flesh that's holding me back. Since returning from my travels, my diet has been horrible. I have gained too much weight. I have been drinking too much alcohol. I haven't been sleeping enough. I haven't been exercising enough. My blood pressure has been dangerously high. So much so that I have had to take medication to lower it. Medication that affects my ability to concentrate and clouds my memory.
Obviously, something had to give. Most likely, my heart or a blood vessel in my brain.
While driving down to Seattle to make deliveries for Honey Moon, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour. The episode was called Nudge. It was was about how a tiny "nudge", a small change in behavior, can break us out of our habitual patterns and start a real process of change. I found particularly fascinating the section where Judson Brewer speaks about Mindfulness and addiction. My emphasis.
Now, with mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. What? Yeah, we said, "Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it's like when you do."
And what did they notice? Well here's an example from one of our smokers. She said, "Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!" Now, she knew, cognitively that smoking was bad for her, that's why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like shit.
Now, she moved from knowledge to wisdom. She moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in her bones, and the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.
Now, the prefrontal cortex, that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective, it understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn't smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, to help us stop eating that second, that third, that fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control. We're using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out, which isn't that helpful.
Now, we can all relate to this in our own experience. We're much more likely to do things like yell at our spouse or kids when we're stressed out or tired, even though we know it's not going to be helpful. We just can't help ourselves.
When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back into our old habits, which is why this disenchantment is so important. Seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them at a deeper level -- to know it in our bones so we don't have to force ourselves to hold back or restrain ourselves from behavior. We're just less interested in doing it in the first place.
And this is what mindfulness is all about: Seeing really clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors, becoming disenchanted on a visceral level and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.
This isn't to say that, poof, magically we quit smoking. But over time, as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.
The paradox here is that mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what's actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.
What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations -- oh, there's tightness, there's tension, there's restlessness -- and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on.
In other words, when we get curious, we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we're eagerly awaiting that next data point.
Now, there was something about the simplicity, the obviousness, of his talk that struck me. I knew it was critical to the process of memorization to be mindful, to be present. But not entirely so. It is always shocking to me to realize how much the "robot consciousness" is willing to take over from the mindful consciousness. Often I am surprised to realize that I have memorized a poem robotically, while my mind was thinking of other things. Imagine saying, "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action", over and over, almost like a mantra. You drift in and out of being aware of the meaning of it. At times, it is merely a series of sounds similar to when you say your name over and over, knowing that those sounds are the sounds you are known as, but they become strange with each new iteration. All of this is part of the process of Mantra Work.
And the realization that you have memorized a a beautiful and profound sonnet without entirely thinking about it is unsettling. Of course, the memorization doesn't stick. The sonnet slides down the exponential line of Ebbinghouse's Forgetting Curve. Without Mindfulness, presence, disciplined intentionality, without absorbing the meaning of the sonnet, of entering into the interior architecture or the poem, everything is forgotten. It was never given name and place in the three-dimensional architectural of the Memory Cathedral.
Allowing bad and unhealthy habits to control my behavior, even the supposedly sacred behavior of my Memory Practice, led to a life-threatening decay of my physical being and a shocking diminishment of my mental being. And I became falsely enchanted, believing the static and noise were part of the music and silence. It has been a familiar vicious cycle.
Taking to heart the TED talk and with Milo of Croton in mind, I worked to be just a little more mindful and present about my day. Having a Memory Practice helped tremendously. As I re-initiated my Memory Work, I watched for the distractions: a pang of hunger, a slight headache, being out of breath as I walked, a drowsiness before practice, etc. The thousand natural aches, pains and shocks of the flesh. At times, I felt an almost oppressive weight upon my will whispering with insistent voice: stay asleep, what good will it do to memorize a poem, it's cold out, eat more, get drunk, start tomorrow, give up, nothing is worth doing, resign yourself to death. I have felt like this so many times in my life, it is laughable almost to write. It's my peculiar clown dance.
After Memory Practice, I started logging in an online application everything I ate. It's been a revelation. I had thought I was doing well with sodium intake and was shocked to learn how much sodium was in my normal diet. Then, I started tracking body metrics during day: blood pressure, heart rate, weight, etc. Logging in sleep. Also started tracking income and expenses. Being mindful has led to being in control of diet and health. Which leads to a richer practice of memory. Instead of the negative feedback loop, it is a positive one. What is always amazing / horrifying to me is how it all hinges on an incremental nudges, an internal tipping point from being awake to asleep. And the levels of each: how awake am I? Right now: how aware. More. But not enough. Not yet. Mephistopheles is still Faust's servant.
If ever I to the moment shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me.
Oct 25, 2016
I imagine Gilbert Ryle would be dismayed at the resonance his compelling phrase, The Ghost in the Machine, has acquired over the years. Perhaps amused to note that it has taken on a "life of it's own" - a Frankenstein creation that has betrayed it's creator with trenchant irony. Where Ryle was attempting to undermine the Cartesian Dualism of mind and body, the poetry of his words gave it a new life - better: after-life. For where Descartes postulated a mind and a soul inhabiting the flesh and bones of the body, Ryle's phrase (counter-Ryle) leaves us haunted by a ghost lost or trapped or imprisoned with a puppet made of meat. And Ryle would have it for us to acknowledge the illogical superstition of this ghost and deny our haunted nature. But the ghost is persistent. And we are all of haunted creatures crucified on a cross of bones.
I am reminded of this daily as my body fractures and stresses under the burden of time and suffers the accumulated excesses of my heedless youth. "The Spirit is willing, but the Flesh is weak." The ghost is exhausted from his haunting. The wails and chain-dragging, knocks and bumps in the night, the luminescent flashes of divine radiance no longer startle or shock the flesh. The false enlightenment of cynicism infects every thought. The ghost is a harmless and all of his efforts of scare the life out of flesh are pathetic and silly.
There are infinite regressions here. The One and the Other. I who write and You who reads. Ryle wrote: "In searching for the self, one cannot simultaneously be the hunter and the hunted." I see the logic. But I can easily persuade myself this is not so. I am multitudes. And the motivation animations of my flesh are informed with these personas of Mind and Body, Ghost and Machine, Hunter and Hunted. These are problems with language. And while I can see what Ryle was up to, there is a nauseating atmosphere of reductionism in his thought.
What I am up to is trying to re-animate the Ghost. The Ghost who no longer haunts but is lost within the labyrinth of the Machine. I want to find this Ghost and make it newly awe-full and terrifying. A Rilkean Angel:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
July 3, 2016
It's difficult to be in the world and to be detached. To be close to others and not be involved. Socially, I make a practice of being polite and nice as a sort of lubrication that facilitates movement through society but also makes it difficult for anyone to grab hold.
On a deep level, I know this is an act, a defensive behavior, a sort of social camouflage, that allows me to be in the herd and simultaneously, believe myself to not be a part of it. But it's only good for a little while because if I stay camouflaged too long, I have trouble remembering what I really look like. That's what I refuse to forget. And this refusal is the mortar that keeps the bricks of my boundaries in place.
I'd like to imagine myself a wolf in sheep's skin and fleece, but I am more of a sorrowful gathering of poorly animated bones hiding in the skin of a man.
Jun 29, 2016
Saw a kid at the lake the other day. Walking past me. Cut-offs, no shirt, jaunty stride, king of the road, not a care in the world.
I'm holding a book of Shakespeare's Sonnets, glancing at it occasionally, memorizing, a lumbering bear soaked to the bone with experience and guilt.
Kid looks back for a quick glance: checks out the book, my inward gaze, smirks at me like: Sucker! Reading a book while you're out at the lake! Loser. I'll never be THAT guy! Skips off towards the pier next to a boat launch like as happy as a dog chasing birds just to make them fly. His whole life in front of him, still we behind the ears with newness and innocence.
Suddenly I remember when most of the world was new, bright, shining, as pink as young girl's tongue. Used to go to a YMCA day camp out at Lake Dallas. I remembered the first time I ever ran down a pier and jumped straight into the water, not checking timidly with a toe for temperature or looking for rocks, just fucking jumping for joy.
At the same camp, there was a little carnival before the one night we got to sleep out there. A kissing booth. Some of the older girls and a couple of junior counselors. I was maybe 12. Darla was cut-offs and t-shirt and a tan and about 16. I walked up the booth and puckered my lips for a kiss like Alfalfa and she grabbed my face and kissed me and slipped her tongue into my mouth like a surprise. She tasted like nothing i'd ever experienced before: the taste of summer and sweet sex and bubble gum and lakewater and blue skies and starlite above a campfire. All my buddies saw it and for the rest of the night, I was a young god, running like a buck through the woods, climbing trees like Tarzan, absolutely golden and immaculate and full of youthful happy hope.
All of this in a flash of the kid's smirk and skipping away...
This morning I was at the Nuclear Cardiology lab at the hospital. Sharp pains in my heart led me there after seeing a doctor last week. They hooked me up to an IV and injected me with a radioactive isotope, Technetium (Tc Atomic Number 43, half-life = 6.1 hours). The first of two radioactive injections. Then they sent me to the waiting room for my heart to fill with radioactive joy. I mentally recited sonnets 49 through 70.
They return and I am led to a plastic room that no one wants to remain in for very long and told to lay down on one of those plastic tables while a plastic tube full of metal orbited around me. The nurse showed me what looked like a hurricane coming through the static on a dead TV channel and said: that's your heart.
I closed my eyes and worked on sonnets 71 through 90.
Then I was taken to a treadmill and given drugs to artificially speed-up my heart while I stared at post card of tropical beaches and a kitten in a santa hat. I told the nurse I found the kitten in the santa hat to be profoundly disturbing. She asked why. I said it was hard to articulate: something about a calculated cuteness mixed with an inhuman morality. No laughter. The speed of the treadmill seemed to increase.
Afterwards, I was told not to cross the border. They have radioactive sensors that I would trigger. Not going into Canada, returning back to the US. The US does not allow radioactive people to enter into the country. Good to know.
Next, I was fitted with a Holter harness, a portable EKG for 48 hours. I'm supposed to write down any pains in my Heart Log. So far, this is what I have:
Heart Log: 1:02 pm. Cannot remember the third quatrain of Sonnet 56. Slight pain.
Heart Log: 1:30 pm. Co-worker texts teddy bear emoji. Highly nauseated.
Heart Log: 2:01 pm. Notice old woman eyeing my portable EKG with admiration. I've got street cred with the aged and infirm. Moment of euphoria
Heart Log: 2:30 pm. There's an old man starting at me from the other side of the mirror. Vertigo. Have to turn away and lie down.
Heart Log: 2:45 pm. I dare to eat a peach. The world around me whimpers. I am beset with a cloud of sighs.
Heart Log: 4:32 pm. Deep aching pain of nostalgia as I wonder how that young boy full of hope as he leaps into water over his head ends up as an old man reciting tired sonnets as he walks in circles... never leaving the dry land
Jun 27, 2016
These days there is nothing more vital, more central to my being than memory. It is the ever fixed mark that guides me through my days, the pole star that orients my journey.
Even at my advanced age, I meditate often on the perfecting disciplines of Paidea. As time continues to wage its mostly quiet and always sinister war upon my flesh, I begin to worry over the depredations of my spirit. Of course, the constant paranoia laced fear is to slowly lose my mind and, through this loss, have no awareness of it.
During the worst of my mother's dementia and memory loss, I started on my Memory Project. Initially, as a set of mental battlements which would serve as watchmen for the barbarian hoardes of Amnesia; as singing canaries in the diamond mines of my memory. There on the walls and in the cages deep in the earth, I placed Villion's Straight Tip to All Cross Cove, Carroll's Jaberwocky, Auden's Funeral Blues, Yeats' Second Coming, Keats' Bright Star and Thomas' And Death Shall Have No Dominion, along with an ever growing host of others. After a time, recognizing the sonnet form as an ideal mnemonic device, I began to the Sonnet Project - to memorize all of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.
This was over three years ago. To date, I have memorized hundreds of poems, passages of prose, lists and systems of belief (astrological signs, seven deadly sins, books of the Bible, etc), songs, jokes, melodies and works of art. What started as a fearful and defensive strategy to one day alert me that it was time to die, has mutated into a deeply enriching practice that approximates a religious belief. Indeed, the daily rituals of memorization are religion to me. They bind me to the mast of my belief and keep me from jumping overboard in pursuit of Siren's Songs. They grant me sanctuary from the daily trials, tribulations and trivialities of the world around me and provided me with the foundation upon which to construct a rich and rewarding inner life.
I built a Memory Cathedral within my mind as a place to practice my Religion of Memory. There are transepts lined with Chapels devoted to the Nine Muses, to the Decades of my Life, Monuments to Lost Loves and Alcoves for The Books That Changed Me Most , statues of poets and philosophers, family and friends, paintings and photographs, fragments of music, sounds of the natural world. I spend much of my time there. There is a burning fire in its center wherein abides the core of my self.
Given the richness and wealth of this internal Memory Cathedral, I have increasingly been neglectful of my physical health. Forgetting the Paidea and the necessity to maintain balance and harmony between all aspects of my being, I have left myself exposed to those barbarian hoardes of blankness, absence, meaninglessness, forgetfulness and amnesia. When we are fully present in a moment, our innermost self entirely invested in the unfolding of events before us, dancing with time in the most intimate of embraces, then we are within the innermost core of memory. These are the unforgettable events of our life: the first moment of falling in love, the birth of a child, the death of a parent. It is when we are distracted by the silence of the Siren's Song (Kafka) that we lose our presence and vital involvement in our world, in our life.
Deep within my Memory Cathedral, I have been neglectful of the outside world, the flesh and bone that my Memory Cathedral exists within.
I have been waiting for the barbarians, watching the distant horizon, standing with the Poets on the ramparts, forgetting the warning implicit in Cavafy's poem:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)
Jun 25, 2016
"When the Christian crusaders in the Orient encountered the invincible order of the Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest ranks followed a rule of obedience the like of which no order of monks ever attained, they obtained in some way or other a hint concerning that symbol and watchword reserved for the highest ranks alone as their secretum: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” — Very well, that was freedom of spirit; in that way the faith in truth itself was abrogated. Has any European, any Christian free spirit every strayed into this proposition and into its labrynthine consequences? has one of them ever known the Minotaur of this cave from experience? — I doubt it."
- Nietzsche, On the genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann
[Kaufmann’s note: The Assassins’ slogan is often mistaken for Nietzsche’s coinage and derived from Dostoevsky ; e.g., by Danto [in, Nietzsche as philosopher (Macmillan, 1965)]: it “must surely be a paraphrase of the Russian novelist he so admired” (p. 193).]
"In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov we encounter the idea that, if mankind lost the belief in God and immortality, “everything would be permitted.” But what matters to Nietzsche in this section is the first half of his quotation, “nothing is true,” which has no parallel in Dostoevsky.
Incidentally, Nietzsche never read The Brothers…."
- From Origins by Jeff Taylor
You can imagine anything. There is no limit, no necessity of logic or law. You can say anything. Anything can be written. If you are not concerned with truth, there is no restriction upon your language.
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
In his Proverbs of Hell, William Blake wrote an antidote:
"Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth."
But what is the truth value of these statements? There is a self-referential unraveling at the heart of each. Each seems a representative form of the Liar's Paradox:
This statement is false.
Where is the Truth?
The question haunting every language construct. And when we commit (and the hint of crime is salient) a speech act or a written act, what difference does it make to the truth? The wonder of it is that language can spin up these beautiful lies, fictions, that can function as accurate mirrors to reflect our present condition. What does the Truth matter in such an instance? If we look into the Iliad or Hamlet or Faust and are able to see a representation of our self - and through this reflection, are able to gain a deeper insight into our condition, then who would question the Truth of the language here?
What disturbs me about my own writing and speech is how easily it can create a Narcissistic Mirror which captures my own attention but has lost all relevance to the world beyond myself. There is a trap of Decadence. I can occupy my time creating castles in the clouds as I starve to death or am suffering a terminal illness. And with all the pain in the world, the creation and enjoyment of fictional worlds to escape into seems one of the few joys we have as human beings. Without being able to dream of a better world, life would be a mistake.
But there is a danger here - a crisis endemic to our time - of becoming lost in the Land of the Lotus Eaters, where the Odyssey is forgotten, the Quest abandoned, where we no longer desire to make it to Ithaca or home. I wonder what the literature of the Lotus Eaters would be like? Is literature even possible under the conditions of of this narcotic paradise? Or necessary? Is a fundamental discontent with reality a necessary condition to creation and invention? Things could be otherwise. There is a better way to live. There is a another method to make things easier. What underwrites the artist's desire to add creation to creation?
I think of Kafka:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Under the weight of these words, I wonder: why am I writing these words? And how do I create a language like a axe or a hammer?